People Make Different Moral Choices In Imagined Vs. Real Life Situations

It turns out there’s a big difference between what you think you’d do in a certain scenario versus what you’d actually do in that scenario if faced with it in real life. In a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers had 192 participants complete an online questionnaire containing a series of hypothetical moral dilemmas and measures assessing various individual factors relating to their personalities such as antisocial tendencies, moral identity, and animal empathy, among others. A week or two later, the participants came to the research lab where they saw two cages, one containing five mice, another containing one mouse, that both appeared to be hooked up to an electroshock machine. Participants were told the cage with the five mice would receive a painful (but nonlethal) electric shock when a countdown ended, unless they chose to hit a button that would ensure the shock only went to the cage with one mouse. In reality, none of the mice received an electric shock. Researchers found that participants who preferred outcome-based reasoning were more likely to say they would press the button to divert the shock in the hypothetical scenario, and they expressed less doubt and discomfort with this decision. However, participants’ decision-making preferences were not associated with actual behavior in the lab. Study co-author Dries Bostyn says this finding has implications for other studies that rely on hypothetical scenarios to predict real-life behavior when it comes to moral decisions.